Not even two weeks ago, 28 year-old Detroit Lions placekicker Havard Rugland hadn’t ever played in a professional football game – preseason or otherwise. Just nine months ago, he had his first NFL tryout for the New York Jets. And a little over a year and a half before that, he began teaching himself how to kick a football, mostly because he needed a new hobby after his local soccer team folded.
Incredibly, Rugland first caught the eye of the Jets several months after he posted his increasingly-popular YouTube video,
“Kickalicious,” back in September of 2012. Even though he didn’t receive an offer from Gang Green, it was clear he wasn’t just your average guy who made a viral video while kicking a couple of trick shots.
In March of this year, Rugland, worked out for the Cleveland Browns as well as the Lions, and Detroit ultimately offered him a three year deal worth $1.485 million on April 11, 2013.
In a little over two years, Rugland has gone from working as a Norwegian youth counselor who was experimenting with an unknown sport, to suddenly crashing an NFL roster. Rugland’s unusual rise has made him incredibly popular with fans in Detroit, and every week he takes another stride from being an amusing curiosity to a legitimate NFL kicker.
Rugland’s contract contained no guaranteed money, so a roster spot is anything but assured.
Two days prior to signing in April, the Lions picked up another placekicker in six-time Pro Bowler, David Akers. In 2011 with the San Francisco 49ers, Akers set an NFL record by drilling 44 out of 52 field goals, including seven of nine from 50-plus yards. Unfortunately, he followed that up with a poor performance in 2012, hitting just 29 his 42 attempts. While he was 3-for-3 in the Super Bowl, Akers was constantly battling nagging injuries as well as age, prompting the 49ers to release him at the end of the season.
If anything, it seemed like Rugland was just an insurance policy in case Akers couldn’t get healthy. But time and time again, he’s demonstrated his incredible talent when given the opportunity. Early on in organized team activities, he surprised his teammates by connecting on a 58-yard field goal. And then he did it again in training camp.
While converting long kicks in practice is a far cry from a game situation, Rugland certainly didn’t disappoint in the Lions’ first preseason game against the Jets, either. He was 2-for-2 first connecting on a 49-yarder, and then finishing with a 50-yard field goal.
In Detroit’s second preseason game against the Cleveland Browns, Rugland made the most of his only opportunity, booting a 33-yard field goal in the Lions’ lackluster offensive performance. But while Rugland has done all the right things in his first two games, so has Akers. The veteran has hit 4-of-4 field goals during the preseason and has done his best to show that he’s returned to his 2011 form.
Even though both players appear to be solid options for the kicking position, it’s highly unlikely that the Lions will sacrifice a roster spot to retain two kickers. Ultimately, they’ll have to make a decision, and soon.
While Akers certainly offers experience and a solid leg, he’s 38 years old with a long injury history. In a best case scenario, he could remain the Lions’ primary kicker for another two or three seasons before he’d almost certainly be replaced.
Rugland, on the other hand, is 10 years younger with a powerful leg and quite a bit of upside. However, with the mounting pressure on Detroit’s coaching staff to return to winning form, they’ll likely opt for the six-time Pro Bowler over the inexperienced rookie. In a “win now” league, that would certainly be the safe decision.
Rugland hasn’t performed as strongly on kickoffs, and head coach Jim Schwartz also selected Akers as a team captain for the Lions in their second preseason game.
Ultimately, it seems like ever-popular Rugland remains a long-shot to make Detroit’s 53-man roster. The Lions must make their first cuts on August 27 to a 75-man team, followed by their final roster cut on August 31.
I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if Rugland lands on another NFL team by the start of the regular season. The Norwegian sensation is that good.